By Andreas Hechler (educational expert, Berlin)
This text primarily focuses on the requirements that should be fulfilled in order to provide supportive educational work.
1. Education and intersex
Education and childcare play an important part in shaping people’s understanding of gender in our society. They have also so far systematically helped to ensure that intersex people remain invisible. There is still very little literature and material available to people working in education, childcare, training and social work on the subject of intersex. It is regarded – if at all – as a “special”, “marginal” and or “minority” issue.
Medicine is still the primary field of knowledge that concerns itself with the subject of intersex. However, medical practitioners and other types of professionals that deal with intersex matters (lawyers, politicians, care workers, …) also receive training from educational institutions. It is also worth bearing in mind that intersex people are also present in educational institutions, both as teachers and as students.
The following factors should therefore be taken into account:
1. Facilitate learning about intersex issues (create awareness, encourage self-reflection, reflect on your own values, transfer knowledge, encourage greater confidence to act);
2. Ask what supporting inter* people in educational contexts can look like, and
3. Support parents and the extended family of inter* people.
The main objective would be to contribute to all three areas to ensure that it is possible to live as an intersex person without experiencing fear and discrimination.
When considered within a broader framework, a type of education that has diversity embedded within it should focus on inclusion and recognising others – in this case intersex people. The diversity of human existence and bodies should imply acceptance and respect.
Explanations in this section are primarily directed at endosex professionals, i.e. people who fit within the medical definition of male or female.
It is assumed that the following conditions also apply to intersex professionals for the most part.
Self-education and self-reflection
If there is an intention to focus learning on intersex issues, the primary target group is the teachers/educators themselves. It is important to set aside familiar habits of thinking and perception; to focus your attention away from others (the target group/students/participants/the subject under consideration/inter* people) and direct it onto yourself; to work in a way that considers your own personal history and to bring to mind the way your own gender identity has developed and your own perceptions of gender that are associated with this. This should in no way just involve focusing on the subject in a purely cognitive way, but should also involve emotional learning processes and processes of change.
If this important step is left out, there is a greater chance that the educational staff will externalise their issues concerning gender and project them onto the subject of intersex. The diversity of human bodies, ways of existing and behaving which are not (cannot be) apparent in the binary gender system, can unleash aggression in people who have invested time and effort when they were being socialised to conform with the dominant gender norms.
It can be a good idea to seek out other people who have already engaged with this subject and ask them to accompany you throughout this process so you can learn from their experiences. Only when a mirror is held up to the habitual way of viewing bodies as “normal” through to “abnormal” and educators can set aside their desire to define the gender of another person,
– can it be possible to interact with an intersex person in a supportive way;
– can it be possible to support other people (your own target groups) when you deal with this subject.
The objective is not to encourage “tolerance” towards a small minority, but to engage with the subject in a self-reflective way as described above. This involves examining your own perceptions and ways of existing and behaving by posing fundamental questions about norms and variations, and it ultimately involves recognising that you are also “different”. This process continues throughout our lives – even teachers continue learning. It is useful to incorporate this as part of your own self-perception. The self-confidence that accompanies this process minimises the fear of “other” forms of gender development and modes of existence.
In order to teach and to enable you to explore the subject thoroughly yourself, it is also necessary to acquire knowledge. It is therefore necessary to acquire at least a basic understanding of the latest gender theories and critiques of medical and legal positions. It is especially important to listen to the stories and opinions of intersex people either through face-to-face encounters, texts, biographical reports, documentation, clips and other media articles. Other factors also need to be understood, including:
- when teaching and learning about intersex, it is important to focus on the way society approaches intersex and not on individual diagnoses or clinical symptoms;
- the “normalisation” of appearance goes hand in hand with the stigmatisation of difference;
- medicine’s notion of prevention (carrying out surgical procedures to prevent the child from having problems later in life) is nonsense – it is usually the case that these procedures actually cause the problems;
- the large majority of intersex people who grew up without gender reassignment surgery are healthy;
- Children/young people/adults are still intersex even though there have been so many “normalising” medical procedures;
- a person can be identified as intersex prenatally, directly after the birth, during puberty or also after puberty;
- a clear ban on irreversible medical procedures without informed consent, which can change inborn gender characteristics or an intersex child’s reproductive function, is the central demand of intersex support groups;
- it does not relate to being transgender or sexual diversity und issues surrounding public toilets, the legal recognition of non-binary gender etc. which are of lower importance in comparison to the core demand stated above;
- creating taboos produces feelings of shame;
- it does relate to the type of language we speak and the terms we use; not as an end itself, to produce a cosmetic effect or to comply with a code, but the way we act in relation to diversity is the logical consequence of the way we talk about diversity.
(This list is not necessarily exhaustive.)
3. Attitudes and behaviour
Educational staff are required to serve as allies to intersex people. Their key message and internal attitudes should be: “I am here for you if you need me.” If the inter* person talks to you about coming out, it is important to understand that you have been selected from among many other trusted people and so you should regard this is an important responsibility.
You should also be able to cope if you are not asked to provide support.
The following responsibilities and aspects are also relevant:
Perhaps the most important educational responsibility is to provide support. You will work together with children and young people whose perceptions are reflected by their own experiences, who are supported along this path – this also applies to both inter* and endosex children and young people.
Empathy, acceptance and information
Many inter* people have had to deal with an excessive amount of pathologisation, medical and social violence, and denial and trivialisation of this violence – sometimes with far-reaching consequences (trauma, alienation, the subject becoming a taboo within the family, feelings of insecurity, loneliness etc.). The whole matter essentially revolves around empathy and understanding towards the person who has had these experiences. It is also important to create spaces where the situation is not pathologised, where it is possible to live by key values such as self-acceptance, the ability to overcome isolation by engaging with other people in similar situations (peer approach) and truth (as opposed to creating taboos, disseminating false information and remaining silent).
It is possible to find appropriate situations in which to explain what intersex means: inter* people are completely normal individuals and totally okay. They should be and are allowed to be happy and content. Their bodies differ in certain aspects from the established view of binary gender. This has the important effect of breaking the taboos, silence, secrecy and systematic lying. In the best-case scenario, the dissemination of information helps to relieve the strain on social relationships. This is achieved by conveying the fact that it is not them that is the “problem”, but that it is society itself which is failing the diverse range of human bodies and genders.
The power to define
The power to define who a person is and who this person would like to be should be placed in the hands of the children, young people and adults themselves without limitation. It is particularly important to be aware that these people should be allowed to decide their gender themselves at any time and should have the right to repeatedly change their minds at any point. One or both parents, medical or legal professionals should never define and stipulate a child’s gender. The people concerned are the real experts and it is important that they are given back the power to make decisions about their own lives. This should basically apply to everyone.
It is recommended that all educational institutions adopt this stance where (inter*) children are still too often carefully monitored to check that their gender is developing in a “normal” way, i.e. are they behaving, playing, dressing and speaking in traditional “male” or “female” ways. Transferring the control to define themselves into the hands of the children and young people removes the constant fear that the child could behave in an “atypical” way and the pressure that accompanies this. This is a significant source of relief not just for the inter* children and young people but also for everyone around them (parents, doctors, peers).
Offer protection and adopt a stance
Both neo-Nazism prevention initiatives and the accompanying research into LSBTQIA+ educational projects have made it clear that discriminatory attitudes held by children and young people diminish in line with the extent to which educational staff take a clear stand against discrimination.
If there are any forms of abuse, it is important that educational staff can be depended upon to provide support. Protection is not just required in the event of abusive language, attacks, bullying and similar behaviour, but in the event of medical interventions and violations of privacy, if these are continuing to happen. In these cases, the children or young people concerned should be helped to defend their rights and to find alternatives. They should also be helped to develop resilience.
Under no circumstances (!) should an individual be persuaded or forced to come out or to reveal information about themselves. If an intersex person opens up to you, you should discuss how this person would like to be supported and which options are available. If the person expresses a desire to act autonomously, ensure that you take these wishes very seriously, not least in view of the fact that a great many inter* people have often found out in the harshest possible way that it is impossible to be masters of their own destiny.
If inter* people feel like telling someone something about their bodies, operations, sex lives or similar, they will do just that – it is not okay to ask! On the other hand, it is okay and important to explain that these sorts of sensationalist questions are often offensive.
Encourage contact with peers and empowerment
Educational staff who are not themselves intersex should work toward ensuring that the intersex children and young people in their care have the opportunity to get in contact with other intersex children, young people and adults. Inter* peer groups, patient groups support organisations and self-help groups should be identified and meetings facilitated. A great many inter* people have reported that getting to know other inter* people is an extremely important, affirming and helpful self-empowerment process. Online communities play a particularly important role in helping inter* people to connect with each other.
These types of contacts and self-help groups don’t just help intersex people to become so much more empowered, they also help them to feel fully recognised as inter* people for the first time. This is generally a long journey, yet positive references to intersex make it more difficult to ignore a person’s authentic body and to counter the recurring question “What if …”.
If it is not possible to interact with inter* communities, it is likely that inter* people will consciously accept that they have to put up with isolation and loneliness.
Ability to learn from your own mistakes
Feeling at ease with yourself also applies here. It is not usually possible to act in a consistent way. The boundaries between meaning well and executing something relatively badly are often fluid, and it is not possible for each thing to cancel another out. This should not be regarded as personal failure, but rather on a structural level. For example, this can apply to the way the subject of intersex is approached; on the one hand it can be “really exciting” and on the other hand it can be exoticised. Likewise, descriptions of discrimination and injustice, on the one hand, and creating victim identities on the other. It is better to resolve these dilemmas and to navigate through them in an appropriate way than to try to resolve them in any one direction. This will make it difficult for a person to take action and to dismiss the subject of intersex because it is “too complicated”.
4. Working with parents/families
Working in education often also involves working with parents. Based on studies on transgender, homosexual and bisexual young people, it is possible to conclude that acceptance and support from parents and the extended family can also be extremely important for intersex children and young people. At the same time, very few professional support services have so far been available to either inter* people themselves or to their parents, other relatives or significant others. Social (educational) and educational work should here – as in other areas – include the family environment.
Parents are required to serve as allies and advocates for their intersex children – this should be made clear to them. It is true that they also need support. Many parents of intersex children feel that they have been abandoned and need help. Parents can find it useful to build a support network, especially with other parents of intersex children.
It has proven to be helpful for intersex children if their parents
- know that they have time. They shouldn’t feel pressured by doctors to agree to quick and irreversible medical procedures.
- ensure that decisions that they make now can be communicated to their child in an open and honest way when the child is older.
- know that hiding information about the child’s body from the child can severely damage the parent-child relationship.
- can get hold of comprehensive information about their child’s patient rights and intersex characteristics.
- should document every examination and every discussion with professionals.
Additional information (in English only) can be found in the text I am a parent/friend.
 This combination of letters stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer, inter* and asexual. The plus sign (or sometimes an asterisk) serves as a placeholder for other identities in order to make visible all other genders beyond “male” and “female”.
 The following publications are good examples: German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency (2017): LSBTIQ* Lehrkräfte in Deutschland. Diskriminierungserfahrungen und Umgang mit der eigenen geschlechtlichen und sexuellen Identität im Schulalltag. Berlin.